Whose republic?

When I left the clean, modern hub of Berlin’s hauptbahnhof, its main railway station, in search of a cheap night’s accommodation a couple of years ago, a small sign to one side of an ordinary length of pavement noted the demarcation between old borders. I was crossing from what was West Berlin, part of the Federal Republic of Germany, for East Berlin and the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic; two cities once divided by the Berlin Wall. Bizarrely, I felt a shot of excitement pass through me as I crossed into former Soviet-controlled territory.

 A moody Brandenberg Gate, on the border between East and West Berlin
Germany has changed a lot since its reunification in the early 1990s, when East Germany unified with the Federal Republic. The citizens of other countries that bear the term democratic or people’s in their official national titles aren’t so lucky. The term people’s republic was used by several (mostly communist) nations.

North Korea, for example, likes to be known as the DPRK – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; the liberal democracy of South Korea is officially the Republic of Korea. The centrally-controlled DPRK is in no way democratic, following an ideology of Juche, a strict interpretation of communism (though the very word communism has been expunged from official use). Juche roughly translates as self-reliance, though the DPRK gets plenty of help from China, its northern neighbour. Everything is owned and controlled by the state. As a result, thousands of its citizens attempt to flee every year – just as thousands tried to flee East Germany. The United Nations estimates 16 million (out of a population of 24 million) require food aid annually.

China, the People’s Republic of China, is itself a one-party communist state, claiming to fulfill the will of its 1.4 billion people, while keeping a tight control over them. The internet is strictly censored; search terms including Tiananmen Square unsearchable.

The term people’s republic is now falling out of favour, as can be demonstrated from the example of Libya. Until the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, a little before I began my circumnavigation of Africa, Libya was officially called the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. While meaning ‘state of the masses’: a direct democracy without political parties governed through local ‘councils’ – Gaddafi claiming Libya was the only true democracy on the planet – in reality it meant Gaddafi made every decision going. It’s therefore little surprise then that Libya – as it is again – has struggled with the massive power vacuum left in becoming a truer democracy.

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